The automatic inspection drone is now really getting off the ground
It has been two years since software company Falcker, in collaboration with drone system developer Percepto, demonstrated on the site of Maasvlakte Olie Terminal (Port of Rotterdam) how an automated inspection drone can be used to carry out routine inspections conduct or deal with emergencies. That was a first in the Netherlands at the time. On a regular basis, however, there were still the necessary snags and snags to flying drones out of sight. But that is also changing.
Anyone who has seen an automatically working drone-in-a-box in action immediately understands the added value of such a system. A drone that is standby 24/7 in a docking station to take action and that is controlled from a central control room, there are many applications to come up with for that. Such as routinely inspecting assets on an industrial site, doing security rounds for security, or dealing with an incident basis for an emergency or suspicious situation.
It is not practical that a drone pilot has to be on location to keep the drone in sight during the flight, let alone the drone has to be controlled manually. Technically, this is not necessary at all: modern systems are perfectly capable of running a flight independently, where an operator can monitor things remotely to intervene if necessary. But for the legislature, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flying is still very exciting.
Now, since that demonstration at the Maasvlakte in 2019, a lot has changed in Europe in the field of drone regulations. The most important change is that the rule-based regime has moved away from 2021. A risk-based approach has replaced that. In other words: if an operator can demonstrate that a certain drone operation can be carried out safely on the basis of a detailed risk analysis based on the so-called Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) system. by the aviation authority of the Member State concerned. Thanks to the European nature of the new regulation, this authorization can, in principle, also be applied to similar drone operations in other Member States.
Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) inspection drones offer tank managers numerous advantages.
Proof of concept
Unfortunately, new regulations do not mean that it can be flown right away: both on the side of the authorities and on the end user and the operator, the necessary puzzle pieces have to be laid first. That is why it was decided to start two paths as a follow-up to the demonstration: a proof of concept route based on a lightweight drone and a permit in accordance with the old national regulations, and a second route with the starting point a heavier system and in accordance with the new European regulations.
For the implementation of the proof of concept, a partnership was formed with Maasvlakte Olie Terminal and Gate terminal, Port of Rotterdam and Securitas, in addition to Falcker. Technology partner in this process is the Dutch startup Mapture.ai, which developed a drone box based on DJI’s Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced. The advantage of this system is that the drone weighs less than 1 kg but nevertheless has both an RGB and infrared camera. Thanks to its low weight, the system falls within the limits of the pre-defined risk analysis (PDRA) developed in the Netherlands for drone box systems.
Duco Boer van Falcker explains the process in more detail: “The idea of this proof of concept is mainly to show that the combination of technology and permits is feasible and provides valuable applications. These include asset inspections of tanks and quay walls in this case, deployment in case of emergencies and security through surveillance. We have chosen to fly only above terminals at the end of the Maasvlakte for this route, outside the controlled airspace of Rotterdam The Hague Airport. That makes the permit technically a little less complex.”
Currently, the permit application is for approval with the Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT). The plan is for the system to be installed at the end of October and can be put into operation in November. But before that, there is still a lot to be done, says Boer: “We need to validate the emergency procedures and communication protocols, after installation it has to be tested, among other things, whether the data connection and GPS reception are good and we need to check the remote observation and control areas in the buildings of MOT/Gate and Falcker’s headquarters still furnish. We also have to arrange flight plans and fallback procedures.”
For the second process, Falcker entered into a partnership with the Israeli company Percepto and Koole Terminals. “The use case involves performing lineup checks during product manipulations and spill detection. There are also discussions with the Port of Rotterdam Authority to see if supervisory requirements such as those arising from the ISPS can be filled with this technology. For this process, we are moving to the European model. We have to work out a SORA for this, because Percepto’s drone is a lot heavier at 10 kg and we want to operate within the CTR of Rotterdam. So that requires much more paperwork and alignment with the ILT and Air Traffic Control Netherlands. For example, our operational manual must be converted to a European model. I think we’re 95% done with that now, but I think it’ll take a while before the SORA is approved,” says Boer.
In October, a start will be made to determine all the parameters for the new system, such as the location of the drone box, places for possible emergency landings, crossings of private roads and areas where the drone is not allowed to fly. Initially, the system will be controlled from Falcker’s office, where there is also radio contact with the air traffic control, until U-space is introduced and that is no longer needed.
According to Boer, the complexity is not so much in technology, but much more in the regulatory side. “The most difficult thing is the application and implementation of laws and regulations. It is a new matter for everyone involved. For the end users, for Falcker, for the ILT, for LVNL, for the Ministry and for the port authority. So it requires patience because everything needs to be matched well. It also takes a lot of thought through and dare where responsible. They are baby steps into a new era, but European rules provide a good framework for the implementation of procedures and technology.”
Falcker’s plans go far beyond the installation of drone boxes in the port area of Rotterdam. Boer: “Falcker becomes a value added reseller of Percepto in the Netherlands. We are also going to focus on the rest of Europe. And not only in terms of inspections of assets in the oil and gas industry, but we also look at drone box applications in other sectors.”
In the long term, Boer also provides opportunities for robots operating on the ground. “Percepto’s system goes far beyond the control of one drone. A whole fleet of drones and ground robots, such as the famous robot dog Spot from Boston Dynamics, can be controlled. We’ve really entered a new era. Difficult or risky work that is now being done by people can hopefully be fully or partially taken over by robots in the future.”